April 4 – Seeing Red

One of the hardest lessons to learn is that not everyone is nice and kind; some folks are just plain jerks. Today, Mary and Peter run into one of those folks – but they also meet Daniel, who will become another member of the Secret Science Society. And it all happens when they start seeing red…
It was early Thursday morning, and Peter and Mary had just walked into their school when they saw something horrible going on. An older student was standing by one of the younger students and was making fun of him.

“Hey! That’s Daniel!” Mary exclaimed. “He just moved here; I showed him around the school last week.”

“Nyah, nyah – can’t read!” the bully chanted. “Can’t read, you’re a fool, shouldn’t even be in school!”

“Hey!” Peter said. “That’s not nice!”

“I’m going to get a teacher!” Mary added as the bully took up his chant again. As she started to go, the bully stopped and stared behind her.

“No need,” came Mr. Medes’ voice from just behind her. His normally cheerful face was creased in a frown. “I’m already here. Just what do you think that you are doing, young man?”

“Nothin'” the bully replied. “I’m just sayin’ what every body knows. Everyone knows that Dumb Danny here can’t read. He’s always stammering in class and getting the words wrong.”

“What everybody knows is wrong,” came Mr. Medes’ flat denial. “And what I know is that you need to go to the principal’s office, right now. I’ll be along in a minute, and you can explain yourself to your parents once we bring them here.”

Looking more than a little chastened, the bully slowly walked up the hallway toward the principal’s office.

“About time!” Peter whispered to Mary. “That bully has been picking on kids all year!”

Turning to Danny, Mr. Medes asked “Are you OK, Daniel?”

“Sure,” Daniel replied. “Mary and Peter stopped him before he could do anything but call me names.”

“Thank you, Peter, Mary. If you will excuse me, I must go see to our young miscreant.” With that, Mr. Medes turned and headed for the principal’s office.

“Why did that bully say you can’t read?” Peter asked. “Every time I see you, you’ve got your nose buried in a book!”

“I’ve got dyslexia,” Daniel replied. “It makes words look funny to me. So I have to practice reading, lots.”

At that moment, the homeroom bell rang.

“Oops!” Daniel said. “Gotta run!”

The three friends went their classrooms and didn’t see each other again until lunchtime. During lunch they sat together as Peter and Mary told Daniel about their club and some of the experiments that they had done.

“Gosh, I wish I could do an experiment!” Daniel said. “But what could we do before class?”

“Let’s go to Mr. Medes,” Mary said. “He’s got lots of ideas for experiments.”

Cleaning up their lunch trays, the three headed for Mr. Medes’ classroom.

“Mr. Medes,” Mary started, “we were talking about experiments at lunch and Daniel would like to try one. Do you have any ideas?”

“I wish there were an experiment that would let you see what its like to be dyslexic,” Daniel added.

“That’s a great idea, Daniel!” Mr. Medes said. Turning to the board, he quickly wrote with four different colors of marker:

Test 1 Test 2

“Why are you writing a bunch of colors?” Daniel asked. “And why are they in different markers?”

“Because this Stroop test will let Peter and Mary see what it is like to be dyslexic,” Mr. Medes replied. “Tell me, Peter, can you tell me what colors used to write those words?”

“Sure,” Peter said. “You used red, green, blue, and black marker. What kind of a question is that?”

“A very important one. You see, we’re going to see what happens when your brain gets a little confused. All you have to do is tell me which color each word is written in, as quickly as possible. Do you think you can do that without making a mistake?”

“Sure,” Peter replied.

“How about you, Mary?”

“I don’t know; it looks kind of tricky,” she said.

“Well, the only way to find out it to do the experiment,” Mr. Medes said as he handed Daniel a stopwatch. “Daniel, would you time them, please? What you have to do is read each test as quickly as you can. Daniel will time you on each one. Will you read one of them faster than the other or will you take the same amount of time for both?”

“I think that test two will take longer,” Mary said.

“No, they’ll both take the same amount of time,” Peter contradicted.

“Well, let’s find out!” Daniel said, excited to be taking part in his first experiment.

What do you think will happen? Do the experiment!




Staring at the board, Peter quickly read out the colors in test one without a mistake. But the second test was very different.

“Red, green, blue, black, red, green, blue, black, red, blue, blue, black, I mean red, green, no blue,” Peter said. “I give up! Nobody can do this!”

“Welcome to my world,” Daniel said.

Mr. Medes just smiled and pointed at Mary. “OK, Mary. You are up. Ready? Set, go!”

Mary started calling out the color names in test one. Like Peter, she was able to read them out without making a mistake.But like Peter, she also bogged down on the second test. Though she was able to go one line further than Peter had before making a mistake, it took her nearly twice as long to read the colors in test two as the first one.

“Wow!” Daniel said. “Why did they get so confused on the second test?”

“What happened is that different parts of their brains were fighting,” Mr. Medes replied. “When you learn to read, your brain gets programmed to think of the color red every time it sees the word red. Because the colors and the words matched in the first test, it was easy to read them out. But the words and the colors didn’t match in the second test, so it takes just a little extra time to remember that you want the color the word was written in and not the color the word names.”

“That’s like what happens when I read!” Daniel exclaimed. “I have to pay extra attention so that I see the words right.”

“I told you that they’d walk a mile in your shoes,” Mr. Medes said. “Though nobody knows for sure what causes dyslexia, it has effects that are a lot like those that Peter and Mary just experienced. As a matter of fact, there are some neurologists that use this Stroop test to help diagnose dyslexia.”

“Gosh!” Peter said. “That must be tough!”

“Yeah,” Daniel replied. “I have to read everything twice to be sure I read it right. And I have to do extra homework to do to improve my reading. But I can read, and I’m getting straight A’s.”

Mary let out a low whistle. “Wow – that’s better than either Peter or I am doing!”

“Well, he’s not alone. Many famous scientists were probably dyslexic, from Leonardo da Vinci to Thomas Edison to Alexander Graham Bell.”

Just then the class bell rang.

“Speaking of bells, it it time for you to get to class, Daniel!” Mr. Medes said as he turned to erase the board. “See you in sixth hour!”

With a wave to his two new friends, Daniel went off to his next class, happy to have been part of his first experiment.

April 3 – In The Dark

Today’s factismal: The technical term for an eclipse is syzygy.

Imagine, if you will, that tonight is a warm summer evening in Ancient Greece. You look up and are amazed that the Moon is slowly getting darker and turning a blood red. Being a philosopher, you immediately realize what is happening. The Earth, Moon, and Sun have become yoked together and so you shout out “syzygy!” (the ancient Greek word for “yoked together”). You have just witnessed an eclipse.

The Sun, Earth, and Moon, drawn to scale (almost - the Moon is three times as large as it should be)

The Sun, Earth, and Moon, drawn to scale (almost – the Moon is three times as large as it should be)

Eclipses are one of the more interesting natural phenomena. Not only did the eclipses of the Sun and Moon help ancient Greek philosophers to reason out how large the Solar system must be and the fact that the Earth is round, but they help show both how predictable and how uncertain the Solar System is. The predictable part is easy; once you know all of the factors affecting the orbits of the Earth and Moon, you can easily calculate when the next eclipse will happen and what type it will be. More than 3500 years ago (or about 800 years before that warm summer night in Greece) Babylonian astronomers were predicting eclipses.

The uncertain part is also easy once you stop and think about the problem. The Moon doesn’t orbit the Earth in a perfect circle; worse, the Moon’s orbit is tilted away from the Earth’s. As a result, sometimes the Moon is too high or too low or too far away to create an eclipse. That’s also why some eclipses are very short (like the one tomorrow morning; it will last just 4 minutes and 43 seconds) and some are very long (like the one in 1859 that lasted 1 hour, 46 minutes, and 27 seconds), and why some years we only see two lunar eclipses and some years we see five (1879).

That variation in the Moon’s orbit also determines what type of eclipse we’ll have. If the Moon is close to the Earth, then the Earth’s shadow completely covers the Moon and we get a total eclipse. If the Moon is a little farther out then the Earth’s shadow is smaller and only covers part of the Moon, giving us a partial eclipse. And if the Moon is farther out still, then we don’t get an eclipse at all! Or at least, not an umbral eclipse.

The parts of Earth's shadow

The parts of Earth’s shadow

You see, the Earth’s shadow in space isn’t a perfect cone. Because the Sun is wide, the light from one side casts a slightly different shadow than the light from the other side. If you’ve ever looked at the shadows cast by light coming in from two nearby windows, you’ve seen this effect at work. The area in the middle is dark because no light from either window makes it into the room; this is the umbra (Latin for shadow). And the area directly in front of a window is bright because lots of light makes it in. In between the two regions is the penumbra (from the Latin for “nearly shadow”) where a little light from one window makes it in but no light from the other does. The same thing happens in space; when the Moon moves into the Earth’s penumbra, it gets about 10-30% less light and dims slightly. To an astronomer, that is the start of the eclipse even though a non-astronomer won’t call it an eclipse until the Moon moves into the umbra.

And now that you know what will happen, set your alarm clocks! Tomorrow’s eclipse will be short and sweet – don’t miss it!

April 2 – Water You Gonna Do?

Today’s factismal: The typical American household uses an average of 320 gallons of water each day.

You’ve probably heard the news that California is in a severe drought that has lasted four years so far. The governor has declared a state of emergency and instituted some of the toughest water conservation measures in America. What you probably haven’t heard is that California is not alone; right now, more than half of the USA is in a drought. That’s right – about 53% of the land in the USA (59% of the land in the contiguous US) has been using water faster than it comes in. Believe it or not, this is an improvement over 2012 when nearly 80% of the US was dry.

More than half of the US is abnormally dry (Image courtesy KKKKKKK)

More than half of the US is abnormally dry
(Image courtesy US Drought Monitor)

The drought has been worse before (Data from US Drought Monitor)

The drought has been worse before
(Data from US Drought Monitor)









Part of the reason for the drought is climactic; both long-term climate cycles (e.g., AMO, PDO) and short term ones (e.g., ENSO) have contributed to a dearth of precipitation in much of the US. And part of the reason is simply that demand has exceeded supply for some time now. The Colorado River is notorious for running dry before it reaches the Sea of Cortez. And that’s caused by the two main users of water: families and farming.

The change to intensive irrigation has drained the Republican River (among others) (Image courtesy NASA)

The change to intensive irrigation has drained the Republican River (among others)
(Image courtesy NASA)

About 80% of the nation’s water use is for agriculture. Irrigation is an important part of the “green miracle” that has fed the world since the 1960s; without it, we would have much less (and much less nutritious) food. But even the remaining 20% is a pretty hefty amount. Every day, some 37 billion gallons of water are used by families across the USA. That’s 320 gallons per family per day, on average.

Where does all that water go? Well, a typical shower uses up 17 gallons of water. Toilets? They take 5 gallons per flush. Don’t forget to wash your hands afterwards even though we use about 6 gallons a day on it. A load of laundry uses up 45 gallons of water. Doing the dishes in a dishwasher uses up 15 gallons. And that nice, green lawn? That takes 48 gallons of water a day. Add it all up and we’re talking about the same amount of water that the Mississippi pours out in two hours!

Now there are lots of things that we can do to help conserve water during the drought. We can pressure our politicians to pass laws requiring more water-efficient agricultural practices. We can convert our lawns and gardens into xeriscapes. And we can take part in FreshWater Watch. This international program looks to collect data on fresh water supplies around the world, and turn those into a better understanding of where our water comes from and where it goes. To learn more, stream to:

April 1 – All That Jazz

Today’s factismal: The central melody of a jazz tune is called the head.

Welcome to April, a month of weird weather, strange jokes, and lots of great music. That last happens because April is National Jazz Appreciation Month. But what is jazz? Simply put, jazz is the music that musicians like to play.

Many consider this to be the home of true jazz (My camera)

Many consider this to be the home of true jazz
(My camera)


There are two reasons that jazz musicians like jazz. The first is because it is so adaptable; you can turn just about any form of music into jazz. There are jazz versions of gospel songs, rock songs, brass band songs, and even classical music. The second is because jazz is a balance of improvisation and team work. Even though each player in a jazz combo has a solo to display his licks (the specific way he varies the tone and timing of notes), the combo must work together as a team to make the music make sense.

Jazz is played in small clubs and giant concert halls across the world (My camera)

Jazz is played in small clubs and giant concert halls across the world
(My camera)

Part of the way that they work together is by having each musician play her music in a different time; this is known as polyrythm. In jazz, it is common for some of the musicians to play three notes in the same amount of time that the others use to play two notes. Interestingly, the time used for each note in jazz also varies. For example, the first note of the three may get a full beat while the other two are given only half a beat each. In jazz lingo, these are swung notes. When everyone plays the same melody but uses different times, the music feels more vibrant.

Jazz is played everywhere that people love music (My camera)

Jazz is played everywhere that people love music
(My camera)

And part of the way that the musicians work together is by always returning to the central melody. Because the melody is usually played once with no changes at the start of the song, it is called the head. As the song progresses, the musicians each try out different variations on the melody, much as Bach did with his famous Goldberg variations (only without the wigs). The soloists will try changing the pitch while keeping the melody in a motivic improvisation. Or she might try shifting some of the notes in a paraphrase improvisation. But the best musicians will change the melody by inserting sets of notes known as licks into the melody in what is known as a formulaic improvisation.

The interesting thing is that citizen scientists are much like jazz players. We also work together as a team while working on our own individual solo projects that all come together to improve our understanding of the world around us. If you’d like to combine the two worlds even more closely, then why not Sing About Science? This project aims to gather all of the science songs ever written into one directory so that musicians and teachers and just plain geeks can find the right jazz:

March 31 – What’s Up Doc?

Today’s factismal: The shortest total eclipse of the Moon in a century will happen on Saturday morning.

Quick – what are you doing way too early on Saturday morning? If your answer was “sleeping”, then you might want to set your alarm. That’s because this Saturday will see a total eclipse of the Moon. When will it happen and what will you see? Well, that depends on where you are.

A picture of the Moon during the last eclipse (My camera)

A picture of the Moon during the last eclipse
(My camera)

Folks living in the Eastern part of the US (the EDT region) will see the Moon start to go into a penumbral eclipse at 5:01 AM EDT and will see the partial eclipse begin at 6:16 AM. Unfortunately for them, the Moon will be setting and the Sun will be rising just about then, so all that they will see is the start of the “blood Moon”.

Where the eclipse will be visible (Image courtesy NASA)

Where the eclipse will be visible
(Image courtesy NASA)

Folks living in the middle part of the US (the CDT region) will see the penumbral eclipse start at 4:01 AM and the partial eclipse begin at 5:16 AM. But, just as happens for the folks back East, the Moon will set before the total eclipse begins.

Folks living in the Rocky Mountain area (the MDT region) are luckier than the folks to the East. They will see the Moon enter into a penumbral eclipse at 3:01 AM and start a partial eclipse an hour later. They’ll also get to see the Moon enter into a total eclipse at 5:58 AM and leave the total eclipse at 6:03 AM. The Moon will spend just 4 minutes and 43 seconds in eclipse, making it the shortest eclipse in a century. Their show will end with the Moon setting while in partial eclipse.

But the luckiest folks live on the West coast (the PDT region); they will see the Moon go into a penumbral eclipse at 2:01 AM and start a partial eclipse at 4:16 AM. The Moon will go into a total eclipse for them at 4:58 AM and leave it at 5:03 AM. It will even have just enough time to leave the partial eclipse at 6:45 AM before setting.

Actually, I just lied to you. The luckiest folks are the ones living in Hawai’i. Not only will they get to see the Moon enter the penumbral eclipse at 11:01 PM, they will get to see it leave the penumbral eclipse at 4:59 AM; they will get to see the whole eclipse! (Those folks looking for a great excuse to go lie on a beach with a beautiful wahini now have one.) The partial eclipse will start for them at 12:16 AM and the Moon will move into total eclipse at 1:58 AM and back out at 2:02 AM. It will them move out of the partial eclipse at 3:45 AM.

So go out this Saturday morning and enjoy the greatest show near Earth!

March 30 – Spaying the Difference

Today’s factismal: Spaying a cat or dog reduces its chances of getting breast cancer by 85%.

One of the more interesting things about cancer is how ubiquitous it is. Not just in the human body (which can get cancer in just about every part) but also in the tree of life. Sharks get cancer. Sea turtles get cancer. Tasmanian devils get cancer. And cats get cancer, too.

A cancer-free Tasmanian devil (My camera)

A cancer-free Tasmanian devil
(My camera)

But what is interesting about cancer in cats (and dogs, too) is that some types of cancer can be prevented by spaying the animal. For example, breast cancer is seven times more common in cats and dogs that haven’t been spayed than it is in animals that have been spayed. Interestingly, spaying also reduces the amount of bladder cancers in pets, and may have an effect on skin cancer as well.

A cancer-free cat (My camera)

A cancer-free cat
(My camera)

Of course, spaying your pets isn’t the only way to fight cancer. You can also help scientists discover a cure by participating in Cell Slider. You’ll sort images of cells, identifying ones that you think are cancerous. Each analysis brings us that much closer to killing cancer once and for all. To participate, head over to:

March 28 – A Matter Of Gravity

Today is Saturday, which means that it is time for another adventure with the original Secret Science Society: Peter and Mary! In today’s installment, we’ll find out how to drop a bag of beans…

It was another beautiful summer day. Peter had seen a movie about spies the night before, and had talked Mary into helping him rig the backyard with traps to catch “enemy agents”. Because it was hot, they had decided to use water balloons for most of the traps. And, because she was nice (and wasn’t busy at the computer looking at astronomical images), Peter’s mother decided to bring them something to drink while they worked.

As she walked out with two glasses of lemonade, Peter and Mary were rigging a dead fall trap by hanging water balloons in a tree where they would drop on the unsuspecting adversaries.

“We’d better hang that water balloon a little higher,” Mary said. “It is bigger than the other one and will fall faster.”

“You’re probably right,” Peter agreed. “We want them to hit at the same time, or the surprise will be ruined.”

“Is that really true?” Peter’s mother asked.

“Oh – thanks Mom!” Peter said as he took one of the glasses. “Sure, things that are heavier fall faster.”

“It’s just common sense,” Mary added as she accepted the second glass of lemonade.

“The world is full of things that don’t work the way common sense says that they should,” Peter’s mother said. “I’ll bet you a home-made snowcone that this is one of them.”

“How can we find out?” Mary asked.

“We’ll do an experiment, of course!” she replied. “Do we have a deal?”

Mary and Peter nodded eagerly. They both wanted to be scientists like their parents, and doing experiments was one of their favorite pastimes.

“Follow me, then.” Peter’s mother led the two into the kitchen, where she took out two plastic bags, a jar of beans, and a measuring cup.

“Mary, you’ll measure. I need you to put one cup of beans in the first bag and two cups of beans in the second.”

Mary smiled and went to the bags. Quickly she measured out the beans, poured them into the bags, and sealed the bags.

“OK, now Peter, you are going to drop the bags on the floor. But before you do, I want you both to think about what will happen.”

“Well, one bag has twice as many beans. So it weighs twice as much and will fall twice as fast.” Peter said.

“That’s right,” Mary said.

“So what should we hear when they hit the floor?” Peter’s mother asked.

“We’ll hear the first bag hit, then the second,” Mary said.

“What if they fall at the same rate?” Peter’s mother continued. “What will we hear then?”

“Just one big ‘plop’,” Peter said.

“OK, then. If we hear two ‘plops’ then you each win a snowcone. If we only hear one, then you owe me one. Peter, hold both bags in your hand. Grab them by the top so that when you let go, they’ll fall straight to the floor.”

As soon as he had complied, his mother said “On the count of three. Ready? One, two,…”

What do you think will happen? Do the experiment!


Just as his mother reached “three”, Peter let go of the bags which fell to the ground and hit at the same time.

“Hey! You must have done something wrong!” Mary exclaimed.

“Yeah – the big one should have hit first.” Peter said. “You try it.”

Mary took her turn, holding the bags and letting them go together. Again the bags fell down and hit the floor at the same time. Looking up, she saw Peter’s mother smiling at them.

“What happened? Why didn’t the big one fall faster?”

“Gravity happened. You’ve just done one of the experiments that made Galileo famous. You see, people used to think that heavier things would fall faster. But Galileo and his friends decide to test that idea. Galileo tried rolling balls down a ramp and dropping things from tall towers and masts.”

“Like the Tower of Pisa!” Peter said.

“Well, he lived there, but he probably never actually dropped anything from the tower. He used ship masts because he could just haul stuff up to the crow’s nest using a block and tackle instead of schlepping it up himself. He had decided that the folks who thought that heavier things fall faster were wrong and wanted to see what happened for himself. Many people consider him the father of modern science because he insisted on using an experiment to decide which theory was better instead of just listening to arguments about what should happen.”

“Is that what got him in trouble later?” Mary asked.

“No, his habit of being a smarty-pants know-it-all who made fun of the people who weren’t as smart as he was is what got him in trouble. It is never a good idea to tell someone that they are stupid; Galileo did that to just about everyone, including the Pope. But, even though he wasn’t a very nice guy to work with, he did manage to discover that things fall at the same rate. Just about seventy years later, Isaac Newton would use Galileo’s observations to explain how planets move. Newton called it ‘the law of universal gravitation’.”

“But why does it work?” Mary persisted. “Shouldn’t gravity take longer to make something big fall?”

“Well, acceleration comes from a force being applied,” Peter’s mother explained. “When you press on your bike pedals, you cause the tires to apply a force to the road which then pushes the bike forward faster and faster. When you push on the brakes, the bike slows down. So the accelerations from the forces you create change your speed. But it affects all of the bike at the same time.”

“Oh! So gravity pulls every part of everything at the same time. So every little part accelerates at the same time. So everything should fall at the same rate!” Mary said.

“And that’s why a big object and a little one fall at the same rate,” Peter added. “Because big objects are really just a bunch of little objects stuck together.”

“That’s right!” Peter’s mother said. “And speaking of little objects stuck together, I believe that you two now owe me a bunch of little ice crystals, stuck together with some cherry syrup.”

“Coming right up!” Peter and Mary chorused as they turned to get out the snowcone maker.